To Say #yesallwomen, Say #layleadership

Ellen’s #yesallwomen post hit a chord, but the moment that made me most aware of the state of women in the church won’t fit in 140 characters.

It happened in class last spring, when one of our ordination-track classmates mentioned that in his post-college youth ministry position, people would routinely stop him and ask if he’d considered being a priest—once even tapping him on the shoulder while he prayed in church to tell him to reflect on a vocation.

“It was a lot of pressure,” he said. “If you’re a young person with a faith life, people constantly ask the vocation question.”

I nearly exploded because he was so wrong. If you’re a young man with a faith life, people constantly ask the vocation question. But I had never been asked to consider a vocation, nor had any women I knew.

The church looks around at its young men and begs them for help. Be our priests! Run our parishes! Evangelize our people! Save our church!

The church looks around at its young women and yawns. Do whatever you want. Get married, join religious life, whatever. It doesn’t matter anyway.

It’s hard to shake the feeling that my beloved church doesn’t care about my vocation and doesn’t want me or other women to lead.

That is obviously not the church’s stance, but it feels that way because Catholic leadership is so tightly associated with priesthood. It is virtually impossible for a layperson—and therefore any woman—to exercise binding authority in a parish, let alone at a diocesan or national level.

As a result, we as a church do not value vocations that are not priestly because only priestly ones seem capable of making a difference.

Most of the laypeople who are making a difference right now took alternative paths to Catholic leadership. Elizabeth Johnson and Carolyn Woo have their roots not in parish work, but in Catholic higher education. Authoritative lay leadership there is common, and the number of women in top positions is growing quickly.

It is discouraging that parishes, the backbone of the local church and by far the most expansive and visible church structure, lag so far behind. If church truly values lay and priestly vocations equally, it must welcome and cultivate authoritative lay leadership in parish life.

Parishioners agree. At the Milwaukee archdiocesan synod last weekend, which included a delegate from each diocesan parish, one of the clearest desires that came from participants was for more lay leadership positions, especially for women.

May their voices be heard. May the church, looking for its next leaders, say #yesallwomen by saying #layleadership.


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